Area public health officials are paying close attention to the West Nile virus after the first human case of the year in Los Angeles County was confirmed last month.

The hospitalization of a male child in the South Bay area serves as a stern reminder for Santa Monica, which has not had any reported cases this year as of the end of July, but which has seen the potentially fatal virus crop up in recent years.

Eight infected birds were found dead in Santa Monica last year, according to county public health statistics, and a similar number of dead birds were found with the virus in 2012, according to Daily Press archives.

Humans contract the virus through the bite of mosquitoes, which can become infected when they bite virus-carrying birds.

“This is not a virus to take lightly,” Truc Dever, general manager of the Greater Los Angeles County Vector Control District, said in a press release.

County data supports Dever’s claim. There were 26 deaths caused by the virus in the last four years in Los Angeles County, including nine in 2013 and seven last year. More than 600 infections related to West Nile virus were reported across the county from 2011 to 2014. (The data does not include figures from Long Beach and Pasadena.)

Last year’s total of 218 human infections in the county was the highest figure since the outbreak of the virus in the county in 2004, when 309 cases were documented.

There were 2,205 cases and 97 deaths nationwide last year, including 801 cases and 31 deaths in California, according to federal statistics.

Cases are typically reported in the late summer and early fall months, but they have been documented into November.

According to an informational notice by Santa Monica-based UCLA physician Manali Shendrikar, people infected with the virus might develop flu-like symptoms but won’t necessarily know the cause of their symptoms, which can include fever, aches, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, chills and coughing.

A severe version of the disease, West Nile encephalitis, can include inflammation of the brain and spinal cord and can lead to death, Shendrikar said.

Most mosquitoes don’t carry the virus and most people bitten by a mosquito won’t be exposed to the virus, officials said. Fewer than one in 150 people who are bitten by an infected mosquito become severely ill, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the county’s interim health officer, Jeffrey Guzenhauser, said the virus can pop up anywhere in the region, and people should still protect against mosquitoes by getting rid of pools of stagnant water around their homes and using insect repellent when spending time outdoors.

“Vector control agencies in LA County cannot do it alone,” Dever said. “It is imperative that the public help minimize the risk of being bitten by removing sources of water on their property that can breed mosquitoes.”

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